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With close races and good storylines, NBA has bounced back

NEW YORK - David Stern has all kinds of data showing NBA attendance is up, TV ratings are up and merchandise sales are up.

Good news, obviously, but not the evidence he'd cite first when calling this a good year.

For that, the commissioner turns to a much different set of numbers: the Western Conference standings.

That's where he finds the deepest playoff race his league has ever seen, the catalyst for a remarkable turnaround. The NBA is a week away from closing a memorable regular season, bouncing back from perhaps the worst offseason it's ever endured.

And it's happened in the best way possible to Stern, with strong play and better storylines on the court that are just too good to be ignored.

'The basketball part is what has legs because the world is watching and they're really having a good time watching,' Stern said.

Are they ever.

Throw in a too-close-to-call MVP race, the record-shattering re-emergence in Boston of the league's winningest franchise, and a flurry of blockbuster trades, and there's been no shortage of things to talk about for fans.

'The races, the Western Conference, you've got Boston back being one of the best teams, one of the storied franchises that has now come back to prominence. The Lakers are back up there again with the moves they've made. I think it's been a good year all the way around,' Minnesota coach Randy Wittman said. 'The more competition you have, like this year has been, the more interesting it is.'

Only 21/2 games separated the top six teams through Tuesday in the West, where somebody will have the best record ever for a non-playoff team and there's seemingly an important matchup every night. Denver visits Golden State today in a game that could help determine which team claims the last playoff spot, and the Lakers host the New Orleans Hornets on Friday in a showdown featuring Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, perhaps the two strongest MVP candidates.

No wonder viewership is up 12 percent or more on ABC, ESPN and TNT. Ratings have increased 8 percent on the two cable networks, with a 15 percent gain on ABC.

'Across what you're looking at, together with the improved ratings and the emergence of basketball as a primary story, from the Celtics to the Pistons to Kobe to everything going on in the West, it's come together in a very good way,' Stern said.

TNT had the most anticipated game of the season, when the Celtics snapped Houston's 22-game winning streak last month, and drew its highest rating for a regular-season game since the 2006-07 opener.

'I'm happy that everyone's interested. Why? Because of the competition in the West,' TNT studio analyst Kenny Smith said. 'Every team is viable, every team from 6-7-8 could not make the playoffs. Every team in the first round could get knocked out from 1 to 8. That's why people are interested.'

The NBA is coming off a surprisingly strong March, when it usually cedes the basketball spotlight to the NCAA tournament following its All-Star weekend and trade deadline. This year, thanks to the Rockets' winning streak, a successful All-Star run in New Orleans, and the big trades that sent Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol and Jason Kidd to West powers, interest only grew.

The league drew more than 4.2 million fans, its highest attendance ever in March, and sales at the NBA Store in New York were up 46 percent from the same period last year, part of its overall 15 percent increase for the season.

'This is the best time of the year for the NBA in terms of having eight to nine teams - you're going to have a team that's probably 15 games over .500 not make the playoffs, so that shows you that the league is strong in that area. And then you have the re-emergence of the Boston Celtics, a storied franchise,' Smith said. 'So this is a great time in that sense.'

One few could have seen coming last summer.

The NBA was thrown into a scandal by former referee Tim Donaghy, who admitted betting on games he officiated. Coming just weeks after an ugly championship series, when San Antonio swept Cleveland in the lowest-rated finals ever, things rarely looked worse for the league.

'They were bad,' Stern said. 'But they were bad and they were extraordinarily disheartening and they focused on difficult issues, but we never thought that the foundation of our sport was threatened. We thought that important policies were implicated and we had to do a better job.'

The Donaghy scandal dominated basketball news for a brief time, until the Celtics snapped the focus back to the game when they acquired Kevin Garnett from Minnesota. After winning 24 games in 2006-07, they've smashed the league record for improvement in one season, sold out every home game, and brought back a sector of fans who hadn't watched the NBA since the Celtics were good.

The league hasn't looked back since.

'That's the way it should be,' Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. 'You don't want all those problems, you don't want all that negativity if you're trying to sell tickets and sell a product. The more we get away from that, the better off we'll be as a league.'

Garnett is one of the leading MVP candidates, along with Bryant, Paul and LeBron James. Bryant and James are the best players, while Garnett gets credit for reviving the Celtics, and Paul for energizing New Orleans, which has regularly filled its arena since the All-Star break after drawing some of the league's smallest crowds earlier in the season.

Stern himself is wrapped up in the compelling season. During a recent morning phone interview, he asked for the results of a pair of key West games that ended too late to make his newspaper and an update on how they affected the standings.

He realizes things won't always be this good, but insists they'll never be bad for long.

'This is a very successful, long-term, great product on a global scale and it's going to have some years that are better than others,' Stern said. 'And we shouldn't spend a lot of time congratulating ourselves in the up years, nor should we spend enormous amounts of energy bemoaning the years that aren't quite as good as we'd like them to be, because over time the direction has been a very positive one. The game is terrific.'